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5.08.2010

Top Ten Short Stories

May is unofficially National Short Story Month. It was first declared  in 2007 by Dan Wickett, Executive Director of Dzanc Books. But unlike National Poetry Month (April), it doesn't have the nonprofit support to promote it. It's more of an underground thing with different blogs and websites and publishers doing their own thing. Reading the Short Story is doing some featured blogposts. The Short Review has an issue out. And the Emerging Writers Network (by Dan Wickett) is of course also celebrating it.

Borges said "Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential." Unlike the novel, a short story is easy to digest: it's short. Yet as an art form, it's more rigorious, I believe. Here's my take: in a 300 page novel, you have all that room to mess up the rhythm (and again, like I said during National Poetry Month, it's all about the rhythmn); but in a short story, you have to pick the right words. The shorter the story, the more important it is. You have no room, no leisure to mess it up.

And the short story collection, unlike the novel, is more important than a novel because a novel is mainly one big story and therefore one large point of view: it expresses only things in that one large story. Conversely, the short story colllection, is made of different stories, and therefore multiple points of view. The reader and writer, then, have ways of exploring multiple voices, multiple ways of seeing things. A novelist writes as if to say, "Life is like this." A short story writer talks to himself in a dialogue: "Life is like this, but not always, but sometimes, unless, and yet again..."

Happy Short Story Month! Go out a get a short story collection or read a short story. Here are a few of my top favorites, or The Top Ten Short Stories You Must Read! (of course, not definitive, I hate absolutes)



1. "The Cemetery Where Al Johnson Is Buried" by Amy Hempel

"Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or skip it."
One Sentence Summary: The narrator visits a dying friend and bails out on her at the last minute.

I've read this story so many times--I know I am in love with it. I can quote it. For example:

 "I was telling her we used to drink Canada Dry ginger ale and pretend we were in Canada."
"That's how dumb we were," I say.

And, "I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana--you see it looking full, you're seeing it end-on."

I guess I like this story because it's so concise. Every single word is counted for, and even though there are multiple, disconnected scenes--sometimes going from past tense to present tense and then back again--by the last paragraph, everything add up to create not only a story, but a feeling. I want to cry every single time I get to the last line, and I wonder who Jessica Wolfson is, the person who Hempel based the story on.

My dream would be to have Amy Hempel read this to me. Apparently, there's a rare cassette tape of her reading it, the audio book of Reasons to Live, but that's impossible to get now. My other dream would be to have a naked guy read this to me (an X-Tube idea, I'd pay for it!)--maybe by Blake Butler while he's drunk?

(Note that anytime Chuck Palahniuk begins listing random facts in his novels, it's probably because of this story.)


2. "A Small, Good Thing" by Raymond Carver

"Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this."

One Sentence Summary: (I wrote a haiku)

Parents wait. Boy dies.
Erratic calls while in tub.
Baker shares warm buns.

It's hard to pick a favorite Raymond Carver story (this man is my god), but I picked this one because it showcases his skills. Carver was known as a minimalist and Gordon Lish's bitch. Carver was known to have breakdowns nights before book releases, thinking that Lish's editing went too far. And sometimes it did. "A Small Good Thing" was actually first published as "The Bath," a story much shorter, yet a story much weaker. The way I see it, a good story is like good sex. You have to draw it out. And in "A Small Good Thing," Carver extended "The Bath" drawing out the tedium and fear of the parents in the waiting room--only to find that their son is dead (so they go and try to kill the baker...read it, you'll get it). The revision won him an O Henry. Read this story, read every Raymond Carver story. Read it, remember it, quote it in your sleep.


3. "Going Ashore" by Mavis Gallant

"I don't know," Emma said, "I don't know why we came at all."

One Sentence Summary: A woman in a mid-life crisis goes on an African cruise with her daughter.

I didn't read Mavis Gallant in school. Never even heard of her until I found her book in a store and decided to buy it. I was plesantly surprised. The woman can write! Where has she been? You don't study this kind of stuff in Creative Writing.

If anything is consistent in Gallant's works, it's the figure of the lost woman. Wayward women who don't know where to go. This story perfectly exemplifies that. The story itself does not take place anywhere specific: the characters are always at sea. And when they do get on land, it's only temporary. And it's sad (all good stories have some sadness). It reminds me kinda of Jame Joyce's "Araby." It's has that European feel to it (if you read enough, you can just tell which stories are American and which ones not). But unlike "Araby," there's no sudden ephiphany. There's just an unsureness and the characters are only sure that there will be this unsureness. The story ends with Emma (the daughter) watching the ship go on shore, yet knowing her history, readers can only predict that her unsteady life with her mother will just continue.


4. "The Right of Way" by Daniel Scott 

"Those damn kids. Those godforsaken kids."
"I'll call up Bill McCue if you want me to," I said. "But it never seems to do any good."
Penny looked straight at me then and said. "I was talking about our kids."

One Sentence Summary: A mentally retarded child dies.

I am about 90% sure Daniel Scott is the gay reincarnation of Raymond Carver. The resemblance is uncanny. Both Scott and Carver write only short story (thus far); both concentrated on the lives of the working poor; both are minimalists.

This story too is like "A Small Good Thing." It involves a dead child and the aftermath. Yet there are differences. This one we see more interaction between the child and the parents, we look deeper into the lives of the parents, who are obviously working class (compared to Carver's story, in which it can be argued that they are middle class). The characters are also very different, which makes the reading experience all the more different.

Another difference is that Scott is not as famous as Carver. I've read Carver in every Creative Writing class since high school. Scott is never mentioned; perhaps because he's not dead yet. Perhaps because his career is just starting (he has only two collections out). But Daniel Scott is really just amazing, and I hope the bigger media and publishing houses start to see that.


5. "A Romantic Weekend" by Mary Gaitskill

"Shit! That wasn't erotic in the least. I don't come when I stub my toe either." 

One Sentence Summary: A man and woman go to DC to have a sexual affair for the weekend; they end up hating and loving each other.

I remember reading this story in middle school. I didn't know what it was about. But it stuck in my mind and when I started college, I searched for the story using something like "story about man and woman who try to have sex, but don't get along."

Eventually, that brought me to Bad Behavior.

What I admire most about Gaitskill is her skill to use sex as an exploration to human relations. Like the couple in this story who try to enter into an S&M affair/relationship. Problem though is that they simply cannot understand what each other want and each one is afraid to let his/her guard down. It comes down to the question of what does each of them want and what are they not telling? Overall, Gaitskill skillfully shows her characters' complexity and the complexity of human sexuality. It's like a mix of de Sade and Flannery O'Connor (one she says is an influence, the other she'd never read).


6. "A Few Things Wrong With Me" by Lydia Davis

I didn't like hearing there were things about me that bothered him. It was shocking to hear that someone that I loved never liked certain things about me.

One Sentence Summary: A couple breaks up, the woman tries to figure out why.

Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis...There's something about Lydia Davis that just makes me hold my breath. She takes your breath away, simply put. From writing the shortest of stories (read, "Samuel Johnson is Indignant:") to writing about women masturbating with oboes ("Mildred and Her Oboe") Lydia Davis's language and diction makes your mind warp a little. And she does stuff other writers can't get away with (again, read "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant").

"A Few Things Wrong With Me" is really something. She's minimalist, yet she's chatty at the same time--it's minimalist stream of consciousness, if that can exist. She's one of Tao Lin's influences, but unlike Tao Lin, she's not annoying. She picks at the smallest things, yet they're all important unlike Lin whose writing just seems to ramble, making us wait for a punchline somewhere (I never see it...).

Davis has no punchlines. She rambles, maybe, but it's her form of realism and she perhaps persuades readers of realism best out of anyone.


7. "Little Birds" by Anais Nin

Manuel was afraid that Therese would come in. So he just let them watch the birds and be amused by their colored beaks and antics and odd cries.

One sentence summary: A man moves closer to a school because he likes the girls there, but when he shows them this, they run like little birds.

The best short stories are like sex. This one is like sex. It's erotica. Pity that Anais Nin didn't think much of her erotica. She writes: "It [erotica writing] becomes something ike the life of the prostitute." She did it for the money.

Yet her work are driven not only by sex, it's an exploration of human sexuality, stories about character development.

"Little Birds" is a favorite because it presents a sensual and sexual world without making it obvious. Here's erotica without the word "fuck" or "cock." Instead, Nin paces herself as readers unravel Manuel's desires. Manuel is well-aware of the taboos, yet we feel for him because in Nin's prose, the whole world is something sexual. We are all sexual beings. Sexuality lies everywhere: from his bedroom, to the public rest room. In Nin's world, sexuality is indistinguishable from the rest of the world,  unless of course, we call it out. This mixing of the real world and the sexual world is a theme throughout her erotic works, which should be read by anyone interest in sexuality (I think I can say that I have a degree in sex--I freakin' wrote a paper in college about sex toys!), and a must read for anyone who writes erotica. (For the gay version, read Michael Thomas Ford...you know, before he went vampire on us...)


8. "Wants" by Grace Paley

I wanted a sailboat, he said. But you didn't want anything.

One sentence summary: A woman meets her exhusband at the library, the man insults her, she sits down at the library steps.

This is perhaps the shortest story in this list. Yet its conciseness is its strength. Not a word wasted, and within its two and a half pages, Paley paints us not only a character, but also her history and desires. It's short. Just read it, that's all I have to say.


9. "How To Be The Other Woman" by Lorrie Moore

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially, it means you put your shoes on the wrong feet.

One sentence summary: A woman has an affair with a man, but the man apparently has multiple mistresses.

This story and Junot Diaz's "How To Date A Brown Girl, Black Girl White Girl, Or Halfie" are probably the reasons why I have the habit of writing in second person. It's kinda innovative, kinda has potential to turn out bad. But for this story it works.

In this story, "you" are a woman involved with a man as a mistress. It works well with the theme of the book, yet it works well within the story because it's one of those "how-to" stories. Yet at the same time, the characters are characters. Moore gives us little details that zooms in on these people: for example "you" (Charlene) wear(s) a Phi Beta Kappa key, hoping to get a promotion, for example. The second person mode also get us on the character's side, we feel her pain. Overall, a splendid example of a second person story.


10. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates

Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home, and one for everywhere that was not home...

One Sentence Summary: (another haiku)

My name is Connie.
I am super uber cool.
Maybe I'm kidnapped.

I am hating Oate's newer works. Dear Husband, was simply a terrible, over-written disaster of a collection. Yet Oates's earlier works, are something to be proud of. An Oates's blogger once told me that I Oates herself once said that a writer's best work is usually his or her first works. This is very true, in my opinion, of Oates. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is a classic. It's sinister, like her later works, like all her works, but it feels fresher. It has the rhytmn that her newer works don't (except maybe "Landfill" which is also collected in Dear Husband,). And like the Raymond Carver story (like sex), this story is drawn out at a nice pace that eventually sets us neatly into the ending, when Connie follows Arnold Friend (An Old Fiend, if you remove all the r's). It could not have happened any other way, despite Connie hesitating the entire time.

This is classic Oates, to be read in any Fiction Writing class, yet for some reason, all my teachers have always been impartial (at best) to this story.

Other Stories (in no particular order)
"The Management of Grief" by Bharati Mukherjee
"Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid
"Boys" by Rick Moody (Rick Moody's version of "Girl," to a certain extent)
"Sea Oak" by George Saunders
"Cathedral" by Raymond Carver
"The Train" by Raymond Carver
"Where I'm Calling From" by Raymond Carver
(actually, I consider The Collected Stories of Raymond Carver my bible...I'm that crazy...)
"How To Date a Blackgirl, White Girl, Brown Girl, Halfie" by Junot Diaz
"Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor
"Cinnamon Skin" by Edmund White (this was my first gay story, in middle school, before I even know what was happening, I just remember the enema scene...)
"The Fat Man in History" by Peter Carey
"Becoming Al" by Michael Thomas Ford (because I need to include a gay version of Anais Nin somewhere...)

Happy Short Story Month!

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